Lola Montès (Max Ophüls, 1955)
By Jeremy Carr.
This deceptively uncomplicated language in fact sustains some of the most profound observations on cinema ever recorded.”
Anyone who has read V. F. Perkins’s influential 1972 text Film as Film will find much that is familiar in V. F. Perkins on Movies, a collection of the writer’s shorter criticism published by Wayne State University Press (2020). It’s not that the assembled articles are themselves redundant or repetitive; rather, there are the same aesthetic concerns, the same values placed upon key formal and narrative attributes, the same films and filmmakers fondly analyzed, and, above all, the same linguistic style, which is defined by George M. Wilson in his forward to V. F. Perkins on Movies, referring to Film as Film, as a combination of “perfect clarity, grace, and rhetorical force” (ix). Editing this new collection is Douglas Pye, who echoes these observations in his introduction, citing a passage Perkins wrote about 55 Days at Peking (1963) and arguing the “lucidity of Perkins’s writing, achieved here and in all his work in ordinary language uncluttered by jargon, can make such insights seem straightforward, easily accomplished” (7). But as is demonstrated throughout V. F. Perkins on Movies, this deceptively uncomplicated language in fact sustains some of the most profound observations on cinema ever recorded, and conveys a wealth of influential methods to consider, or reconsider, the inherent nature of the medium.
V. F. Perkins on Movies is divided into two parts, though there is nary any indication of differing tones, objectives, or quality: part one covers Perkins’s articles from 1960 to 1972 and part two contains essays published between 1982 and 2017. Beginning with a 1960 piece for the Oxford Opinion titled “Fifty Famous Film, 1915-45,” Perkins is primarily concerned with the British film industry and the state of British criticism. This first inclusion is preceded by Ian Cameron’s editorial from the same publication, which is included here for context and opens with the bold assertion that “[f]ilm criticism in Britain is dead” (25). Perkins adopts this claim to comment on a booklet printed by the British Film Institute, used to provide notes for the National Film Archive programs at the National Film Theatre. It’s a rather scathing rebuke, but also quite understandable. As Perkins points out, the booklet neglected to include films directed by George Cukor, Josef von Sternberg, Billy Wilder, Jean Cocteau, Howard Hawks, or Jean Renoir; nor were any films from Italy, Sweden, or Japan represented. It’s an early argument for neglected films and filmmakers, a cause championed continually by Perkins who also expresses a more general disappointment with much of the British product being released at the time. But he is not entirely contrarian, making two years later a strong case for Joseph Losey, the American director working in Britain who “managed to produce three films that can stand comparison with practically anything that other countries can offer: Time Without Pity (1957), Blind Date (1959), and The Criminal (1960)” (43). Likewise, he also points to the 1962 film Some People as being “not simply a triumph in the context of British filmmaking, which would not be difficult to achieve; it is, by any standards, a very good movie” (52).
Aside from further expressing his discontent with the condition of British film exhibition, Perkins also takes aim at the British Board of Film Censors in a 1963 essay. Calling out the industry’s chief PR man, whose “function is to protect the industry from hostile public opinion,” Perkins contends this operative had “two main enemies: the cheapjack sensationalist and the artist” and either can, “for his own reasons, incur the wrath of the nation’s moral guardians” (61). This voluble selection carries significant weight in its own right and Perkins’s attack on crusaders of the sort remains as relevant today as it did then, but the sensationalism to which he refers is different than how the term is perhaps now understood. To supplement this argument, Perkins turns to Samuel Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A. (1961), where “sensationalism is a necessary ingredient.” The censor cuts the “most effectively sensational sequences,” consequently winning “the battle, not for ‘morality,’ but for philistinism” (61). This notion of sensationalism, particularly as it relates to Fuller, will be revisited later as Perkins discusses the same director’s Merrill’s Marauders (1962), arguing Fuller’s sensational method is in a literal sense: “He wants his audience to experience, rather than observe, the events and emotions with which his film deals—to know, not simply what happened in Burma during the Second World War, but ‘what it was like here’” (123). And returning to Underworld U.S.A. that same year, also in the pages of Movie, Perkins calls the film Fuller’s “most brutal” and writes every shot “is a smack in the eye. Every cut is a shock cut.” Humorously he also questions if a “shock dissolve” is a “contradiction in terms.” “Perhaps,” he surmises, “but Fuller has always exploited contradictions and Underworld U.S.A. contains a number of shock dissolves” (130).
Perkins’s essential argument is clear and convincing, and the appeal of Fuller’s films in this regard is understood. But Fuller is just one of several filmmakers whose cinema Perkins regularly praises for its ingenuity and distinct characteristics. In particular, Pye remarks how eight of the eleven selections included in the second part of V. F. Perkins on Movies are about directors to whom Perkins was “devoted throughout his career: Nicholas Ray and Max Ophuls” (13). Earlier in the text, though, the first appearance of Ray was in a 1964 Oxford Opinion piece where Perkins calls him “one of the few directors with a personal style which is recognized immediately and with pleasure” and “in English-speaking countries, the most underrated of all contemporary directors” (87). He persuasively argues that actors such as Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Gloria Grahame, and Sterling Hayden all gave their finest performances under Ray’s direction, furnishing ample instances of how each star productively combined their own persona with that of the iconoclastic filmmaker.
Yet his optimism concerning Ray is also countered somewhat by hindsight, discussing, prior to their release, subsequent Ray features like The Savage Innocents (1959), which Ray “considers his best film to date,” and King of Kings (1961), which “is now in production and expected to be better still. A wonderful prospect” (94). These would become, rightly or wrongly, among Ray’s more maligned efforts, and when the latter film was finally shown in England, and despite his apparent reverence for Ray, Perkins recognized its shortcoming, stating Ray “has simply been unlucky with ‘production values’” but also that there are faults “which are entirely the director’s responsibility” (107). Much like Perkins’s earlier exceptions to the blandness of British product, finding the silver linings of Losey and Some People around the otherwise bleak cloud of general distain, he is more than willing to acknowledge the limitations of even his most admired filmmakers. He expounds on Ray’s cinema far more positively in later articles, however, including a comprehensive appraisal of his career in total and a fascinating take on Johnny Guitar (1954), appearing alongside an equally perceptive analysis of King Vidor’s Stella Dallas (1937), for a 2013 piece in The Cine-Files titled “Acting on Objects.”
Other films and filmmakers also receive their due attention. In 1962, Perkins called Howard Hawks’ Hatari! a “digest” of the best of the director and notes how the “only real coherence” of its “loose framework” comes from “the personality of its director” (145). Perkins writes sympathetically about John Ford’s contention with the Hollywood system (a topic not often considered concerning Ford) and suggests Cheyenne Autumn (1965) “joins the list of the cinema’s great ruins; we are more profitably employed examining its greatness than lamenting its mutilation” (185). He explores the formal techniques of Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962), offers up an extraordinary example of supported character analysis concerning Elia Kazan’s America America (1963), and considers the sins and virtues of Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (1952), which has “like many other fine pictures, including some masterpieces […] feeble moments and some passages when it plods and it bores.” Still, he notes, while “second-rank Hitchcock is treasurable in its own right, it also has the great value of showing us what an unlikely achievement first-rank Hitchcock is…” (369). But perhaps “Why Preminger?”, a brief article published in Movie, delivers Perkins’s most succinct and successful argument for any given director, capturing the essence of Otto Preminger in one precise passage worth quoting in full:
[Preminger] refuses to love his characters. His refusal also to condemn, admire, despise, inflate, or to patronize them is less often remarked. His aim is to present characters, actions, and issues clearly and without prejudice. He is concerned to show events, not to demonstrate his feelings about them. This objectivity is a mark of his respect for his characters and, particularly, for his audience (112).
The influence of certain directors, as quickly becomes obvious (and as was certainly obvious in Film as Film), is essential to the overriding arguments in V. F. Perkins on Movies. But Perkins emphasizes the importance of a unique filmmaker’s vision without discounting others who contribute to the final product. He calls “regarding anything not invented by the director as some kind off threat to his authorship” a “bad auteurist habit” (232) and states the director’s authorship “cannot be produced by eliminating the results of collaboration” (233). That said, though, a director’s role is dominant, something Perkins outlines when thoroughly commenting on the continuity of lighting, sound, action, and movement so imperative to Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and when delving into how seemingly slight details are utilized to perfection in Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), where the “very breath of an actor can be made significant when the director places it in an expressive relationship with the other aspects of the scene” (209).
Writing on the impact of a good director, Perkins remarks that “[i]n terms of the package and its ingredients, there is not much that separates The Reckless Moment (1949), Johnny Guitar (1954), or Written on the Wind (1956) from dozens of mediocre products of the Hollywood machine. The crucial factor is the direction of Max Ophuls, Nicholas Ray, and Douglas Sirk” (210). And expounding on how the physical aspects of production like “décor and dress can help the actors to feel themselves into their roles,” he submits that the “detail of performance that brings the characters to life – movement, gesture, intonation, rhythm – has to be established on the set” (213). It’s all part of a larger discourse concerning auteurism as it relates to “two distinct sets of propositions and observations.” The first set, Perkins contends, “concerns ways in which the director’s work may be crucial for the achievement within the single film of values like economy, unity, eloquence, subtlety, depth, and vigor.” This is the point “at which auteurism has things to say about the connection between the good film and good direction.” The second set of “perceptions and arguments” is about “recurrent themes in a director’s films considered as a series. This is the point at which auteurism has things to say about good direction and the director’s involvement with themes, viewpoints, and methods of sufficient personal significance to carry over from film to film” (223-24). He looks to Hitchcock, Welles, and Ray as exemplars, where an image “by any of these directors has a virtually indefinable quality, like that which constitutes ‘presence’ in an actor: perhaps it is best described as weight” (88).
Perkins’s comments on auteurism are largely in response to the work of Andrew Sarris and Peter Wollen on the same subject. There is agreement in principle, though there are expected divergences in approach and underlying application and not everything Perkins proposes is easily accepted, just as it isn’t for Sarris and Wollen, proving the usefulness of theoretical variance. For example, one of Perkins’s more curious arguments against Wollen is in a passage alluding to what seems to be a rather reasonable proclamation: “Wollen offered one of the most emphatic but weird statements of the auteurist claim that you cannot understand one of a director’s films until you’ve seen them all: ‘It is only the analysis of the whole corpus which permits the moment of synthesis when the critic returns to the individual film’” (224). Of course, any single film can be understood, but surely there is indeed a benefit in observing a director’s entire corpus. In any case, some of the more engaging passages in V. F. Perkins on Movies are when Perkins responds to the writing of other scholars, or even just their passing comments. He offers up a less than favorable response to David Bordwell’s Making Meaning, for instance, writing “Bordwell’s practice runs counter to his precepts, since at each major stage his procedure presupposes what he aims to prove. There is an uneven contest between some of the book’s claims and the tendency of its structure and rhetoric continuously to demean and dimmish the work of criticism” (247). But he also acknowledges those who have informed his own perception of cinema, singling out a George M. Wilson essay that “opened [his] eyes” to Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937) (460).
Certain essays included in V. F. Perkins on Movies go beyond the highlights of specific films or filmmakers and instead approach more general, and in many cases more insightful, aspects of cinema as an art form. “Where is the World?” is an exceptional case in point. The impetus for this piece was a comment Perkins took issue with, about how a fictional world should be viewed as a metaphor. Instead, he argues with astonishing insight that the fictional world of a film is a central aspect in and of itself, dependent on spectator presence (“that we can be present as an audience to witness the absence of witnesses is an index of the separation between our world and the world of fiction” ) and referencing Andre Bazin to reiterate “on-screen presupposes off-screen,” adding “selection by the camera […] asserts significance” (276). Perkins uses Citizen Kane to illustrate his observations, noting the differences between what is known in the film (real world figures, for example) and what has been created for the film, how various aspects of narrative, formal device, style, viewpoint, tone, and meaning establish a dependence “on the worldhood of the fictional world” (275). He is quite right to state that “film studies has in the main ignored the fictional world, at best taken it for granted,” and that there is a lack of attention to the fictional world—“what makes it a world rather than what makes it fictional…” (277). It may be the simplest of points, but Perkins makes his case with such lucidity that the matter does appear a profoundly underestimated quality of cinema. “If, as it seems to me, this has been an exercise in exploring the obvious,” he writes, “then it is an obvious that we have mainly chosen to ignore” (297).
In something of the same fashion, he distinguishes between terms like “cinema,” “films,” and “movies” to establish a loftier point concerning “popular culture connotations, prejudices, and assumptions” (257). And commenting on the nature of mass appeal, how specific films are indicative of a cultural commonality, and how commercial interests determine accessibility, he maintains “the products of a selection-survival system offer an imperfect mirror of audience desires since box-office arbitration can come only in those forms and between those films that the structure of the movie business promotes or accepts,” adding that is “one reason why popular cinema is almost always the current cinema” (258).
“Any aspect of image and sound,” Perkins maintains, “and any feature of the world that can be presented audiovsually, is available for expressive use” (224). A sentence like this conveys Perkins’s prevailing positivity when it comes to cinema, despite any issues he may have with selected attributes of the industry. He stands firm on the possibilities of filmmaking and employs extensive historical research to illuminate the multifaceted forces that determine quality and content, for better or worse (see his 1960 examination of two films reluctantly directed by Cukor). But there always remains an impassioned zeal, expressed in the depth of his analysis and the way he breaks down elements of movement, montage, and mise en scene with incredible attention to detail. In a piece on Johnny Guitar, he uses the Peggy Lee song title song, generated to promote the production but barely heard in the completed film, as a launch pad for reflections on gender in the western and on star Joan Crawford. He also takes a single, underdiscussed sequence from Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and crafts an intriguing dissection of the film at large; then, years later, he returns to the passage and provides an additional reading in view of Hitler, World War II, and the conjoined implications. Here and elsewhere, Ophuls is treated to particularly loving analysis; as Pye argues, the six essays on Ophuls “constitute perhaps the most insightful body of work on this celebrated director” (14). Perkins can make an unassuming statement like “a simple shot can be just as intricately structured as a complex one” (437), but even that identifies a vital element of Ophuls’s brilliance when the more elaborate aspects often receive the most consideration.
V.F. Perkins (1936–2016) was a central figure in the evolution of film studies, and the assortment of essays gathered for V. F. Perkins on Movies certainly lives up to the book’s promotion as a collection making it “possible to see his writing as a coherent body of work, developed over a long career, and to appreciate its great historical and cultural significance.” But there is also, just as beneficial, the sense of Perkins being simply a movie lover, an undervalued but absolutely indispensable trait of any good critic. It’s amusing, even, that he uses the occasion of the Criterion Collection’s release of Le Plaisir (1952) to comment on a letter Ophuls wrote about the film and lament it wasn’t included with the disc’s “otherwise splendid array of extras” (433). The same goes with a Film Quarterly piece on Lola Montès (1955), where he comments on the Criterion release of that film and its “unusually rewarding extras” (451). Among other things to align Perkins with the average, ardent cinephile, it seems he reveled in substantial home video supplements as much as the rest of us.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (forthcoming).